By Julie Davis, AEM Senior Director of Workforce and Industry Initiatives, SHRM-CP —
I am both excited and a bit hesitant to share my thoughts about how to approach and support women’s recruitment and career development.
I really want to do it, and I have so much to say. I found my initial enthusiasm, however, was quickly offset by a lingering concern about sharing my thoughts through the lens of my own lived experience.
My closest confidants know I was jaded, and at times even downright cynical, about women’s growth and leadership after I spent six years running an organization. Thankfully, that grinding experience led me to my current position with AEM, where I found a culture of authenticity that provided me with an environment where I could grow, develop and heal from past challenges.
So, being excited (yet hesitant) about the prospect of speaking to my fellow women about career development, I did the thing that we do when we want to speak the truth because it needs to be said… I went right to the experts. The women themselves.
"It starts with organizational leaders and middle managers really taking a hard look at how their core values and behavior, policies and practices are playing out in the everyday, lived experiences of people at work. It comes down to values of inclusion, respect and recognition of individual identities with unique needs, and needs that change over the course of careers and life phases."
I decided to send out a survey to other women and gather their feedback, allowing me to completely clarify the message I wanted to deliver.
The survey was comprised of these questions:
- What was most impactful in helping grow your career?
- What is the largest element missing from any workplace that is crucial to supporting the advancement of women and what solution would you suggest?
- What advice would you give to leaders and employers on how they can help women rise in their careers and/or in the industry?
- Do you believe you have experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace based on being a woman? If yes, did you take any action?
- Do you have any other advice?
That kind of covers it, right?
But something unforeseen happened when that survey was distributed.
Women emailed me, expressing their appreciation to me for the survey. They wanted to make sure I intended to share the results. Other women professionals in the field of workforce development who received the survey started emailing me and wanting to connect, and THEY wanted to know the results. I shared the survey on LinkedIn. It averaged about 50 minutes to complete, and women were taking it and THANKING me.
Then, I started reading the results. Women didn’t just write a sentence; they wrote paragraphs. They were really being thoughtful. And the best – or worst – part of what I found out, was that my lived experience and their lived experience were one and the same.
It’s safe to say the survey didn’t go the way I expected… Instead of showing me that my lived experience existed apart from the normal, it showed me that it was pretty much the normal.
So, what did these women have to say? What was the truth they wanted me, and us, to hear?
You might guess that these women, (some of which are you) didn’t suggest that we have training classes so that they could learn to become more assertive, competitive or confident, “leaning in” women, so they could learn to take charge and do better at asking for what they want.
They didn’t declare they felt females had an ambition gap, or, to the best of my knowledge, list any of the 133 “typical mistakes women make due to their socialization” listed in “Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office.”
To my delight, they said what you and I might say to our friends (leading me to believe that wine may or may not have been involved as they filled out the survey).
So, with all that said, here is the advice they shared. (And I feel the need to point out that much of this advice isn’t just great advice for women. It really is just great career advice.)
1. What was most impactful in helping grow your career?
Respondents in their twenties focused on the need for clear communication and feedback, some degree of guidance, help with networking and a desire to be heard:
- Supportive leadership, honest/candid communication
- Guidance and practice
- Having a strong mentor that is encouraging yet constructively critical to help me do my best
- Learning and noting everyone's career path is different and that is OK. Also moving lateral is okay as well
Respondents in their thirties shared what had been most impactful was mentorship, taking ownership of their own career development and finding sponsors to provide opportunities to push them beyond their current boundaries (because their sponsor believed they had it in them to grow and succeed):
- Having a good variety of mentors from various fields serving as my “board of directors,” regardless of gender. I’ve leaned on these people quite a bit over the years, and the group shifts as my needs change.
- Taking ownership for my own career development. Continuing to take advantage of training and learning opportunities to grow myself and show my organization that I take my role and career seriously, and that I am willing to invest my own time into my career development.
- Being given opportunities to present to leadership and being mentored by strong female leaders early in my career. Additionally, the support of family and friends to help with children, which is what often sets young women behind.
Respondents in their forties or above were similar in their feedback. What was described was sponsorship by managers, supervisors and other leaders, and given opportunities that stretch them professionally. In addition, they shared details about being mentored – either officially or unofficially – by someone, as well as the importance of taking ownership of their careers:
- Other women taking the time to empower me. Encouragement, guidance and a listening ear was what I needed to encourage me to believe in myself and to continue to take chances in my career.
- Having someone who saw potential in me beyond the efforts I was putting in and choosing to mentor me. Mentorship doesn’t have to be an official agreement; it can be two parties with mutual interest in helping one succeed.
- Taking charge of my career and not waiting for someone else to do it for me or that they had my best interest in mind. I asked for opportunities and proved my worth. After proving my worth, I then initiated conversations about salary and title. This scenario played out multiple times as I grew my career.
What’s most impactful in helping grow our career? Fostering and developing relationships with one another, mutual support, communicating and giving feedback clearly, and with kindness to one another. Also, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of taking ownership of your journey. Women succeed best in cultures that value communication, collaboration and responsibility. If we want women to advance, we might need to ask ourselves if our promotional paths elevate collaboration or competition?
2. What is the largest element missing from any workplace that is crucial to supporting the advancement of women, and what solution would you suggest?
The themes that emerged as women answered this question included sponsorship, flexibility, empowering women to drive their careers and valuing diversity.
- It starts with organizational leaders and middle managers really taking a hard look at how their core values and behavior, policies and practices are playing out in the everyday, lived experiences of people at work. It comes down to values of inclusion, respect and recognition of individual identities with unique needs, and needs that change over the course of careers and life phases.
Understanding a need for balance because the reality is that many of us, especially during certain phases of our lives, are simply juggling more.
- …Introduce flexibility to get that work done, however it works for their life- specifically support women through their childbearing years. There shouldn't be a stigma or unwritten penalty for work flexibility for a couple of years. So, 50% time, 80% time and 4x10 hour days should be options for everyone. You want to retain your workforce? Offer options.
- Work-life harmony. Not viewing outside obligations as a hinderance. Solution is setting up a workplace culture that doesn't encourage working more and draining yourself. Cultivating a culture where we embrace and accommodate parents’ needs, particularly in the early years, and setting an example of fathers being a part of the child rearing process (i.e. paternity leave) promotes equality.
More than one comment asked if it’s really women who need to change to conform to the world of work. Or, if the way business operates and measures success was largely created and carried over from the Industrial Revolution, it’s time for us to reconsider the measuring stick of success at work.
- The notion of "leaning in" and that it's on women to conform to the way men excel and do things is BS. Women I know that attempt to lean in are branded as aggressive and self-serving- it feels forced and artificial. - I was able to do my best work when I had a manager that viewed his job (because it was a "he") as more of a servant leader than a field marshal or cheerleader. All leadership types can be effective, and I'm guessing a combination of those types would make us the more effective. So, the best way to support women and their careers is to have an environment where women feel comfortable being their true selves and bringing their whole self to work each day instead of trying to fit into a system or type designed originally for men whose wives stayed at home. So that means results oriented work vs how late they stay, or how late they stay at the bar at a work event with colleagues.
Yep, I couldn’t have said it any better than that, so I’m not even going to try.
So, leaders, here, in their own words, is the advice from the very women you have working for you:
3. What advice would you give to leaders and employers on how they can help women rise in their careers and/or in the industry?
- Invest your time into rising women.
- Taking the extra few minutes to make a personal connection, praise someone for their work, ask about their personal life, etc., as it goes a lot further than people credit.
- You can't be what you can't see.
- Take a look at the women in your organization that deserve more responsibility and leadership roles, and then raise them up. In addition, female leaders should seek out opportunities to be a mentor and resource to other women coming up in their careers.
- Put women in the room. Always.
- Get to know your employees and the current workplace culture for women.
- Ask questions, survey, observe, etc. Then provide opportunities or make changes based on the feedback.
- Learn different forms of communication.
- Don’t patronize me because I’m a woman. Push me because I can be great.
- Don’t make people afraid of my sex, and how I might mistake a tap on the elbow.
- Correct the behavior I show you that you don’t accept. Learn the tightrope we walk in this world and keep the dialogue open. Make us an active part of the conversation. You cannot fix a problem if it’s something you haven’t been subjected to in the past.
- Provide flexibility/teleworking/parental leave/etc. for everyone.
- Also, encourage everyone to use it, so that women don't stand out when they do.
- Understand women have different societal pressures and expectations than men.
- Be aware we have barriers to overcome physically, physiologically and emotionally that men do not; that childcare often falls on the mother regardless of her support system. Additionally, please stop singling us out for diversity and inclusion, we are not your poster children. Provide us the same opportunities for advancement that our male counterparts have- invite us to golf, hunting and fishing outings, and be sure to consider other activities that are more female-friendly.
- Invest your time into rising women.
Well said, ladies. Well said.
I found myself wishing that I could include every insightful, well-stated answer as I delivered this advice on women’s career advancement. These women know what would help their career development. They are all very articulate. They have obvious passion in this area. By this point, I found myself asking the two most obvious questions:
- Are companies not asking their women what they need?
- Or, if they are asking, are they more interested in trying to change women instead of how they run the business?
Let’s think about the business case for changing the business instead of the women. Studies show that if more than one-third of an organization’s leadership is female, there’s an associated increase in financial performance and innovation and a reduction of organizational risks. Organizations that focus on rewarding collaboration, teams and trust are higher achievers than those who reward individualism, self-interest and game-playing. Organizational practices developed when lines of men were creating widgets and that rewarded competition between men to produce more have been replace by organizations that advance based on the success of problem solving, innovation and communication. Let’s develop and promote business practices that support the type of business that we need today. Imagine a future where collaboration was truly rewarded and that was what we all were striving toward.
"The best way to support women and their careers is to have an environment where women feel comfortable being their true selves and bringing their whole self to work each day."
Leaders; men; women; co-workers; will you open yourselves up to building relationships, mentoring, sponsoring, and having kind yet honest conversations with the women (and men) around you. COVID-19 has spurred us to become more empathetic to the reality that we are all so much more than employees. Will you let that empathy spill over to becoming more relational, vulnerable and authentic? I think that would dramatically change the work culture, productivity and success of any organization, department or team that was willing to redefine the path to business success.
Women, be your authentic self, no matter what phase of your career you find yourself in right now. Find or be mentors, sponsors, communicators, advice-givers and career-opportunity-seekers. Accept the fluidity in balance that parenting requires and know you don’t need to be everything to everyone at all times. Who can actually do that? Let’s focus on changing workplaces instead of human beings. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that we’re all human and should be recognized and treated accordingly.
(And if you are wondering if I forgot about questions 4 and 5, I have not. They simply demand their own space, which I fully intend to provide. Stay tuned for Part 2!)
Subscribe to the AEM Industry Advisor for more AEM staff perspectives.